He's San Francisco's contribution to the TV cooking craze, the star of a half-hour public-access cable show filmed in the heart of the Haight. The gourmet in question is Bruce Brennan, a white-bearded, balding 48-year-old whose sister runs the, nudge-nudge, Herb 'N Inn boardinghouse a few steps away from the corner of Haight and Ashbury.
Shot in the inn's remodeled Victorian kitchen and back yard and various harmonious locations around Northern California, the shows are homemade, well-crafted, and not as hippie doctrinaire as one might expect. Producer, editor, and cameraman James Ehrlich, 39, who sports a Van Dyke, long elfin curls, and a cell phone close at hand, likes to shoot Brennan outdoors -- at the beach, at a retirement sanctuary for performing animals -- to bolster the Northern California atmospherics. Ehrlich follows intently as the chef, his mustache tinged yellow from tobacco, wanders into the yard to snip fresh herbs or reaches into the chili pot with bare hands to pulp whole tomatoes.
The shows, put together by Ehrlich on a Mac, have a shambling, soothing charm. They intercut Brennan's low-key cooking sessions with local musicians or passers-by who mug for the camera and announce the next dish. The clubbers, gutter punks, goths, and other Haight youths are for Brennan a continuation of the Summer of Love: "You step out that door," he says, "and you know the vortex is working."
The Hippy Gourmet says a lot of things like that. In a two-hour conversation, he mentions "cosmic links" at least four times and somehow connects the dots among the CIA, George Washington, French collaborationists, Kevin Costner's Waterworld, "weird global illuminati," and restaurateurs. Think Thomas Pynchon channeled by Anthony Bourdain.
And throw in a splash of Julia Child. Even though his lamb kebabs came with a vegetarian disclaimer (they were for carnivorous friends), Brennan loves old-school dishes such as the seafood Newburg he recently whipped up for the 35th episode (shallots, garlic, butter, rich fish stock, shrimp, scallops, more butter, and, well, OK, milk instead of cream). Or zabaglione. Or fondue. Or seafood mousse and cheesecake. It's America's idea of gourmet food from its nuclear-family years, dishes that Brennan honed in his teens and 20s at French restaurants and at an IBM executive retreat center. Sure, there's homemade granola and veggie burgers as well as forays into Thai, Brazilian, and Mexican cuisine, but it's obvious from Brennan's banter and his waistline that the rich sauces and desserts are his "faves," as he likes to say.
Brennan's hippie papers are legit. As a teen on Long Island he was busted for skipping school to attend an anti-Vietnam War rally. He built a geodesic dome and lived for a few years in Nova Scotia. He and his sister promote hemp products and hang Haight-Ashbury nostalgia posters and photos in the inn's dining room. Someone has used the '60s-vocab fridge magnets to spell "Simon commissioned Garfunkel for a Nixon assassination."
On camera, Brennan's heavy lids and baritone voice exude deep calm. Off camera, he'll talk for hours about, say, solar-powered malls with self-contained water systems and fish pools to feed the citizenry. Ehrlich steps in to provide a little focus. He envisions a "tremendous following of cool, hip people," à la Deadheads, catching on to the show.
Ehrlich would love for the program to be picked up by the Food Network. Brennan just wants to have a big enough budget so that "we can solve all global problems from the dinner table." And hire a prep cook and a dishwasher.
Ehrlich is trying, but so far meetings with production companies here and in L.A. have yielded no results. No matter. The Hippy Gourmet has expansion plans that include a cookbook, a line of spices, and merchandise. And, yes, tie-dye aprons.
But in the face of this enthusiasm, questions abound: Will the Iron Chef generation tune in and turn on to Brennan's Zen-monotone delivery? Will foodies want more explanation? Qu'est-ce que c'est "structural cheese," exactement? And whom does he mean when he says, "A lot of people are scared of beans"?
Do not stay tuned for Cheech and Chong meet Jacques Pepin. "You could bookend Bruce with go-go dancers and Austin Powers-type scenes and happy Haight Street flower-power type stuff," says Ehrlich without a trace of irony. "I see Austin Powers as the kind of hippie that people are excited about and is easier to associate with, rather than the druggie aspect."
What's the appeal of a hippie gourmet who doesn't bake, you know, cookies or brownies? In his sunlit kitchen, Brennan smiles conspiratorially. "'Cookies' will be coming in the second cookbook," he says. "You'll have to hold the recipe up to the mirror."
The Hippy Gourmet airs Fridays at 7:30 p.m. on San Francisco cable Channel 29, although it's moving to Sundays at 6:30 in December. The Web site is www.hippygourmet.com.